THE ARTSHOW by Alanis King, directed by Paul Thompson, with Jani Lauzon, Lorne Cardinal, Sarah Podemski, Gloria Mae Eshkibok and Sean Dixon. Presented by Native Earth at Artword (75 Portland). Opens tonight (Thursday, February 26) and runs to March 14, Wednesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $15-$22, Sunday pwyc. 416-366-7723. Rating: NNNNN
One art form at a time not enough for you? Then try Alanis King's play The Artshow. The Native Earth production examines the life and work of native painter Daphne Odjig. Not only is it a biography of Odjig, it also brings to life characters from her canvases.
Told in a non-linear and often surreal fashion, The Artshow traces Odjig's history from Manitoulin Island to Toronto and then out west, at the same time bringing onstage some of the key people in her life - painters Pablo Picasso and Ojibwa artist Norval Morrisseau - and archetypal native figures like the Thunderbird.
"What I love about this show," enthuses native artist and writer Bonnie Devine, who's designing the sets and the costume, "is that it honours dance, music, acting, painting and clown. It's the same kind of joyous combination you find at a powwow or storytelling circle, where everyone contributes his or her best."
That combination of elements doesn't throw actor Jani Lauzon, who plays Daphne, but she's still trying to wrap her head around playing someone who's a living role model for so many people.
"It's also a challenge trying to get inside a painter and see how similar and yet how different the acting and visual art processes are," admits Lauzon, a singer, Dora nominee and co-founder of The Turtle Gals.
"Bonnie allowed me to help her paint some of the set, which was part of my work on the role," laughingly remembers the actor, "and at first I was afraid to commit any colour to the canvas.
"That was a profound experience, because Daphne's works are such daring statements. But through exploring a relationship with colour and paint I could begin to understand the dialogue that happens with the paint, the dialogue with the shapes. Eventually I discovered the sheer joy of playing with bold colours. It's related to but not the same thing as an actor using body and voice."
There's also a personal note here for Lauzon, since her father was a painter and she's using some of his own brushes in the show.
Odjig's art is both a personal statement and an extension of native pictorial tradition that carries with it ancient story and myth.
"Daphne rhythmically weaves her designs with shape and line to create harmony," says Devine. "Picasso did the same thing, simplifying and essentializing the truth of an image brilliantly."
A self-taught artist, Order of Canada winner Odjig was one of the key players in gaining recognition for native visual artists in Canada and beyond. One of the founders of the Professional Native Indian Artists' Association in the 70s, she was the only woman included in the Indian Group of Seven, whose work, like that of its earlier white counterpart, expresses a unified identity.
"I think she found her own voice through studying the cubist works of Picasso, pieces that fracture an image and reconnect it using a new pictorial syntax," says Devine. "Though they never met, he admired her work, and in 1986 she was one of four international artists asked to paint a memorial work for him."
No one knew quite what it would be like to lift Odjig's two-dimensional images and give them three-dimensionality onstage.
"I've learned the truth of Daphne's statement that realism is boring," notes Lauzon. "The world she creates exists in another space, one that for me connects to nature and a heightened level of creative living."
"It's what Morrisseau calls the house of invention," continues Devine, "an Ojibwa concept that plays out on many levels. Alanis has captured that apocalyptic moment of moving from two to three dimensions, of lifting a figure off the page and giving it life in our world. The figure must appear to be fighting that move to another plane, and the intended result is sometimes comedic, sometimes awkward."